FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013

And the prize goes to…

 

It has taken six months but I’ve finally finished reading the 2013 Booker shortlist – a mammoth task, not made easier by the current fashion for ridiculously long books. The final part of the task is to decide whether I agree with the judges’ choice of winner. So here’s a brief summary of what I thought of the books – click on the book title if you’d like to read any of the full reviews.

Just for fun (and hopefully to provoke a bit of controversy), I’ve put the books in reverse order…

* * * * * * * * *

Shouldn’t have been shortlisted…

 

the lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Lahiri’s strange choice to leave the interesting character and storyline of Udayan and the Naxalbari at an early point in the book, and instead follow the dull-to-the-point-of tears Subhash and Gauri to the States for (yet) another look at the ‘immigrant experience’, combined with her lacklustre writing and lifeless characterisation, led this to being the only one of the shortlist that I really wouldn’t recommend at all. So, for the FF Shadow Booker Award, it’s been removed and replaced.

* * * * * * * * *

6th and last place

 

a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

 

The quality of writing and storytelling shown in the part of this book that deals with the young Japanese girl Nao is in stark contrast to the clumsiness and dullness of the portion relating to the author’s namesake (and alter-ego?) Ruth. Add in copious and unnecessary footnotes, daft little drawings and the silliest descent into quantum-mechanical quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo at the end and you have a book that could have been great…but isn’t. (Perhaps it’s great in a parallel universe, though…)

* * * * * * * * *

5th place

 

HarvestHarvest by Jim Crace

 

With poetic, often lyrical writing, Crace’s book brilliantly evokes a rural society on the cusp of overwhelming changes as landlords begin to enclose land for sheep-farming. Unfortunately the narrative voice is somewhat unconvincing and the story falls away badly in the last third of the book. Well worth reading, and worthy of its shortlisting, but just fails to be great.

* * * * * * * * *

4th place

 

Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

 

The strongest and most beautiful piece of writing on the shortlist, this short novella punches well above its weight and will undoubtedly be the book I remember most vividly. But…it’s far too short to be considered a novel, and for that reason, regardless of how much I loved it, I remain surprised that it was shortlisted and can’t bring myself to think that it should have won. However, it comes with my highest recommendation of all the books – if you haven’t read this one, you should.

* * * * * * * * *

3rd place

 

burial ritesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

 

This book should have been shortlisted in place of The Lowland. A haunting and heartbreaking debut, this fictionalised account of a true story shows a confidence and assurance rarely matched by even the most experienced writers. Kent conveys brilliantly the harsh Icelandic environment, the relentless struggle of the inhabitants, the constant threat of extreme weather; and her use of language is skilled and often poetic. The omission of this one in favour of The Lowland shows that sometimes more account is given to an author’s name and reputation than to the actual quality of the novel.

* * * * * * * * *

2nd place

 

we need new namesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

 

There are significant weaknesses in this book – firstly, the ticklist of horrors that Bulawayo seems to be working through in both Zimbabwe and the US, and secondly, the weakness of the second half in comparison to the first. However these are massively outweighed by the positives – the freshness of the writing, the characterisation of Darling (who has joined my list of unforgettables) and most of all, the beautiful chapter in the heart of the book that reads like a prose poem as it describes the exodus of a generation from their troubled homeland. This book has gained a permanent place in my heart and the decision not to name it as my winner has been a hard one indeed…

* * * * * * * * *

1st place and…

Winner of the FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013!

 

the luminaries blueThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

 

Yes, I believe the judges got it right! (I bet they’re sighing with relief!) Intelligent, original, and wonderfully crafted, Catton’s structural game-playing doesn’t prevent this from being first and foremost a great read. The only one of the books apart from The Testament of Mary in which the highest standards are maintained all the way through, The Luminaries does what any great book must do – it teaches us something we didn’t know and sheds some light on that nebulous thing we call the ‘human condition’. Despite its ridiculous length, I can envisage re-reading this book more than once and gaining something new each time. A worthy winner!

* * * * * * * * *

 

Overall I enjoyed the books and the challenge of reading them all, but I suspect it will be a one-off experience, especially since, by allowing American authors to participate, the Booker has thrown away the thing that made it unique amongst literary prizes – its deep ties to the Commonwealth. (I shudder at the thought of The Goldfinch winning in 2014…)

* * * * * * * * *

Now…let the controversy begin…

 

(puts on some music and steps out of the way of hordes of irate Lady Fancifulls…)

 

50 thoughts on “FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013

  1. Wonderful concise reviews—and I’m taking your word for the recommendations.
    I’ll definitely add The Testament of Mary and The Luminaries–to my WLTR list
    (would like to read seems less demanding than TBR!) Thank you!

  2. Haha! Well done here! What a wonder that you agreed. (I love the part about a parallel universe. I feel that sort of thing all the time, I think.)

    I think Burial Rights is my favorite.

    • I know! I was shocked to agree – much more fun to fight with them, but the truth must be the truth. (That book should be sent to a parallel universe…)

      Good choice, sir! (Despite the unfortunate spelling error.) I’ve added it to your list…

      • The truth is volatile! ( *laughing* I love that you think that, you know.)

        Oh yes. I meant Rites. Now wait a second! I’m not sure I’ll agree to that. How many are on my huge list?

        • So wise, Shnoddy…er…I mean, Prof! (See what a wicked influence you are?)

          Haha! I was referring to ‘favorite’ actually – hadn’t noticed the other. 486 at the moment – it’s been a busy week. But you’ll probably find that now that you’ve become a romantic, you’ll read more. In fact, should I add some poetry? Shakespeare’s sonnets perhaps?

            • Oh, make up your mind, sir!! The Professor is certainly volatile! (Mutual perhaps – which is a worry!)

              I’m not hugely fond of reading him myself but I love, love, love to see the plays performed, when done well. Or have some wonderful actor read the great sonnets… *chuckling* Fear not – the true figure is 8…so long as you’re nice to FF…

            • I suddenly forget what volatile means. But I think I am whatever it means. It sounds nice, at least.

              Did you know he was the cause of my suicide? 8?! I’m doomed already.

  3. I have only read three of the shortlist, ‘Burial Rites’, ‘The Testament of Mary’ and ‘The Lowland’ and of those three I would chose hannah Kent’s ‘Burial Rites’ closely followed by The Lowland. ‘The Luminaries is on my TBR but as I am reading the door-stopping 800 page novel, ‘The Goldfinch’ at the moment I will be leaving the reading of ‘The Luminaries’ for the forthcoming months.

    • I’m glad you preferred ‘Burial Rites’ to ‘The Lowland’ – especially since you thpough much more highly of ‘The Lowland’ than I did. ‘The Luminaries’ is definitely worth reading when you feel strong enough – I found it a much easier read than ‘The Goldfinch’ mainly because I enjoyed it so much more probably, but also I thought it flowed better so was easier to read in biggish chunks.

  4. Just a quick note to say that if you haven’t listened to Meryl Streep’s performance in the audiotape of Testament of Mary, run straightaway to whatever store you use and get it. Or do as I did, quite unplanned — jump on a British Airways flight and plug in your headphones and have a listen. Absolutely remarkable, and the best way to spend a transatlantic flight . . . or two (counting the return). She is amazing.

    • Ah yes, I have already listened to it on your recommendation some months ago and enjoyed it very much, though as so often with audio versions she didn’t totally chime with my own mental picture of Mary. She’s such a great actress though – I’m hoping other great actresses will also take the book on at some future point and let us have a variety of versions…

  5. FictionFan – I love your choice of soundtrack! As far as your views on the shortlist go, I find it interesting too that many of those highly-regarded books really are very, very long. I’m not 100% sure where that trend comes from, but I”m quite certain there is one. Must do a post about that sometime…

    • Oh, yes, do! I don’t know where the trend is coming from either – I read loads of reviews from people mentioning that books are too long, but it’s rare for people to complain about them being too short. Especially when books are so comparatively cheap and easy to get hold of, maybe we’ve lost the capacity to devote a huge number of hours to just one…

    • Haha! There were many moments when I wished I hadn’t embarked on the whole thing, but I did enjoy most of the books very much. Those two – Burial Rites and The Luminaries – are both excellent reads – hope you enjoy them as much as I did! 😀

  6. ‘Fraid the only one of these I have read is The Testament, which I thought was wonderful. Lit. fic. isn’t really my thing, but your reviews may tempt me to have a go at some of these. 🙂

    • Yes, I’m not sure which of these I’d recommend to you. Burial Rites perhaps, or The Luminaries. But really, apart from the first couple, I thought they were all very much worth having a go at…

  7. Hahahahahahahahahaha it was only the gorgeousness of the Rackham illustrations and the fact i was laughing so much that stopped Donna, Ruthie and me from strapping on our Viking helmets and launching into a rousing

    Halt’ ein, o Vater! Halt’ ein den Fluch!
    Soll die Maid verblühn und verbleichen dem Mann?
    Hör unser Fleh’n! Schrecklicher Gott,
    wende von ihr die schreiende Schmach!
    Wie die Schwester träfe uns selber der Schimpf!

    Next year, I’ll be the one with the football whistle and klaxon, shouting DonNa, DonNA Gold FFFinch. Oy Oy whilst you and Jillann wince, fingers thrust in ears.

    Well, if you found Lumo got you that severely i shall give it a try.

    You have made Elinor, and the Booker judges, happy, one and all.

    Right. Must go polish my helmet, ready for next year. Though i’m not quite sure i want to be cloned into a horde.

    • Haha! Couldn’t resist, my fellow Valkyrie! Ooh, no, even you can’t want The Goldfinch to win the Booker, surely? There must be some British or Commonwealth writers out there who haven’t had the benefit of the hype she’s had – not to mention how dull if all the major prizes are given to the same book! (Especially a really, really bad one… 😉 )

      Yes, do try The Luminaries – when time allows! Meantime, here’s my helmet since you’re in polishing mode…

  8. Crace is a superb stylist. He has a natural rhythm with language that usually makes his books mesmerizing. But I’m not sure Harvest sounds like my cup of tea at the moment. I may wait for the next one.

    I think I’ll go with The Testament of Mary. I had started reading We Need New Names awhile ago, but wasn’t pulled in. Perhaps I had other distractions that tore me away. It is in the pile next to my bed, so perhaps I’ll pick it up again.

    Sounds like Lahiri needs to give her theme a rest for now and start developing a new one—or a new way of telling the old ones since authors tend to revisit the same threads throughout their lives. But it sounds like there were other shortcomings as well. Perhaps she felt pressed to get another novel out?

    Readers (and writers) are such fickle creatures, aren’t they?

    • Testament of Mary got a big thumbs up from me too Jilanne – it was an early recc that FictionFan said ‘Read This!’ about. I did, and was very glad that I submitted to the order.

    • I loved Lahiri’s The Lowland. I thought it was a superb book with very few, if any, shortcomings. It didn’t read as a novel that was rushed. But as FF and I have discussed earlier, it is wonderful the way two readers can read the same book but come away with different impressions. Jilanne, I wouldn’t dismiss Lahiri’s novel so quickly.

    • The bad news is I understand Crace has said this is to be his last ever – I suspect that might partly be why it got shortlisted. Though I did think it deserved its place, but not to win. The language was beautiful but I’m not the only person who thought it fell away towards the end.

      Yes, yes, to The Testament of Mary – a must read! Sorry you’re not really enjoying the Bulawayo – from what I remember it took me a while to get into, and I definitely felt it had problems. But that central chapter blew me away, and I grew to love Darling’s voice…

      I found the Lahiri a real drag but (and I see Chris has just popped in to say so himself) many people are finding it wonderful. Some people have even said the language is beautiful – just shows how subjective the whole thing is, ‘cos I thought the whole thing was flatter than a proverbial pancake…

  9. What an ambitious project! And it made for a really great post. I love that you substituted a different book to make your own short list.

    I am surprised at the choice to broaden the books eligible for the Booker Prize. I agree that it’s unique appeal will be diminished.

    • Thank you! I must admit I didn’t expect it to take quite so long when I started, but I enjoyed it.

      I don’t understand the thinking myself – the Booker and the Pulitzer have always seemed to balance each other and given the opportunity for two great books to be recognised each year.

  10. I have a longterm project to read the Booker shortlists (although I have taken quite a long break from this at the moment). I also was dismayed at the inclusion of American authors- it was so unnecessary. When I do get back to reading Booker shortlists I think that will be my cutoff. I haven’t read any of the current shortlist- but definitely have Burial Rites on my TBR (indeed it’s in the stack next to the bed), and The Luminaries, but I would need a good two months to get through it I’m sure.

    • Gosh, that’s some project! Having done it for just the one year, I can’t imagine being able to take on all the previous shortlists. Yes, I’m hoping they might reverse the decision at some point, but I doubt it, and I think it will destroy the prize’s prestige in time.

      Burial Rites is a great read. I loved it – a real standout read from last year. And The Luminaries didn’t take as long as I expected – it was one of those books that flowed well enough to make it possible to read quite big chunks at a time. Hope you enjoy them both! 🙂

    • Definitely one well worth reading – not nearly as weighty and consciously ‘literary’ as some of them, and with a really strong story. If you do read it, I think you’ll enjoy it… 😀

  11. This is great! I’m impressed that you read the whole shortlist. I’m slightly daunted by “The Luminaries” length but now I definitely want to read the Toibin!

    • Thanks! Haha! I must admit if I’d realised it would take me so long I’d probably never have started. The length of ‘The Luminaries’ put me off for ages too, but it’s actually an easier read than it looks – it flows well so that I found I was reading quite big chunks of it at a time. The Toibin is wonderful, though – enjoy!

  12. Wonderful summaries. Last year I started on the shortlist but only got through two of the books – A Tale for the Time Being and We Need New Names.

    I heard high praise for the former and was a bit disappointed with all the crow mumbo jumbo, but I loved We Need New Names in spite of all its flaws. Darling was an awesome character.

    • It took far longer than I intended when I started to read them all – don’t know if I’d have the courage to do it again!

      Yes, that’s how I felt about both those books. In fact, although I enjoyed We Need New Names at the time, my appreciation for it actually continued to grow after I’d finished, as the character of Darling and some of the scenes stayed with me.

      Thanks for popping by and commenting! 😀

  13. Interesting reviews! I haven’t read Harvest or We Need New Names but I think my favourite from the four I have read is A Tale for the Time Being. I agree that Lahiri uses a really narrow set of themes for her writing – I wonder if she will ever write anything that isn’t centred around the Bengali immigrant experience on the East Coast. I have just reviewed The Luminaries and found the structure quite distracting and can’t see myself re-reading it any time soon! However, it is easily the most ambitious, mind-bending book on the list and for that reason alone, I think it deserved to win.

    • Ooh, I really disliked ‘Time Being’ (as you could probably tell!) though I admired her writing in parts – I’d definitely be willing to read her next book and see if it was just this particular one that grated on me. The Luminaries probably wasn’t the one I enjoyed most – that’d be Testament of Mary or We Need New Names – but as you say it’s by far the most ambitious and on the whole I felt she pulled it off.

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